Unkosher Nightlife and Holocaust Humor - Israelis Learn to Love the New Berlin

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Niccolo and Donkey
Unkosher Nightlife and Holocaust Humor - Israelis Learn to Love the New Berlin

Der Spiegel

Doron Halutz in Berlin

January 21, 2011


For decades, the shadow of history and the Holocaust led many Israelis to boycott Germany. Today, though, a new generation of Israelis are discovering Berlin as a center for the arts and European party capital. With their literature, art, cafes and nightlife, they have already become a vibrant presence in the city.

Every Friday at noon, the listeners of Berlin radio station "Alex" can hear the broadcaster speaking to them in Hebrew. The voice behind the microphone at the spacious studio in the German capital's Wedding neighborhood belongs to Aviv Russ, a 33-year-old Israeli who moved to Berlin from Tel Aviv five years ago, and started the radio program "Kol Berlin," or "Voice of Berlin" in Hebrew, a year later.

On this early December day, he is sitting down with regular guest Alexander Uhlmann and talks about Israeli writer David Grossman, the Hanukkah market in Berlin and immigration, all in fluent German. Occasionally, Russ stops to summarize in Hebrew, and at one point, he interrupts to explain something to his Israeli listeners.

"What Alex is trying to say," he says, "is that Russian immigrants (in Israel) live in ghettos. But Alex doesn't want to use this word. That's understandable -- only we (Israelis) are allowed to use it. Just kidding."

It is a uniquely Israeli perspective in a city that was once home to a robust Jewish community, filled with intellectuals, writers, and musicians. Until recently, relatively few people from Israel lived in Berlin, but the Israeli community here has grown considerably in the past five years.
Official statistics indicating only several thousands offer little insight into the trend, since many Israelis enter Germany with European passports. (When Eastern European countries joined the EU, many Israelis became eligible for European passports since their parents or grandparents lived in those countries prior to World War II.)

A New Generation Returns to Berlin
Still, Yinam Cohen, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Germany, estimates that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Israelis living in the city. "This is a relatively new phenomenon," he says. "You can give it all kinds of pseudo-psychological explanations, such as a wearing down of historical barriers, or hype around a new, fresh destination, with good accessibility." There are now 22 weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Berlin, Cohen points out.

Berlin was once home to some of the most important figures of modern Hebrew literature, among them Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, who emigrated from what would later become the state of Israel to Berlin in 1912, and Leah Goldberg, Israel Prize laureate for literature, who studied in Berlin and even wrote a song named after the city. Israel's Philharmonic Orchestra was established in 1936 by Jewish musicians who fled Nazi Germany.

The open wound remaining between Germany and the Jews has led many Israelis to boycott it to this day: They refuse to visit the country or buy its products. A new generation of young Israelis, though, is now returning to the city, despite the shadow cast by history.

Nirit Bialer, 32, who has been a Berliner for five years, considers herself a Germanophile. At the age of 14, she began learning German at the Goethe Institute in Israel at a time when few such courses existed. "People asked why I was learning the language of the Nazis," she says, with a smile. "Today, people fight to get a seat in these courses."

Liberal Sexual Climate
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is still in the process of crystallizing its identity. Berlin is a place of cheap rents, a liberal sexual climate and social and political upheaval that have helped foster a vibrant art scene and alternative culture. With the process of reunification not yet complete, the city continues to this day to redefine itself.

"This is exactly what artists and gays are looking for," says Russ, the radio presenter. "In cities such as London and Paris, the scene is already well-established, and all the positions are taken. Here, though, one can still make a difference."

And coming from a country still faced with military and geopolitical conflicts, many young Israelis are attracted to the peaceful life offered in modern Berlin. "When you visit as a tourist, you say to yourself, 'I want to live in a place where the news opens with an item about the weather,'" says Russ.

"It's relaxed here," says artist Keren Cytter, who was born in the Jewish settlement Ariel in the West Bank and moved to Berlin five years ago. "It's normal."

70 Percent of Adult Israelis Have Not Forgiven Germany
In her book "Israelis in Berlin," written in 2001, Israeli academic Fania Oz-Salzberger pondered whether the relationship between Israel and Germany could ever become "normal" in the wake of the events of the 20th century. A survey conducted last month by the Geocartography Institute in Israel found that 70 percent of adult Israeli Jews have not forgiven Germans for the Holocaust (23 percent have forgiven them, and 7 percent remain undecided).

"I do not know if 'forgive' is the appropriate term," says Gil Raveh. Raveh, a conductor, came to Berlin four years ago on the recommendation of award-winning Israeli conductor Noam Sheriff, who himself had studied in the city. "Forgive whom? Merkel? The waitress who serves my coffee?" he asks.

"I can sit with Germans without thinking they did something bad to me, personally," Raveh says over a cappuccino at one of his favorite cafes in the immigrant-filled and alternative area in the north of the district of Neukölln which is often nicknamed "Kreuzkölln" because of its proximity to the Kreuzberg district. "On the other hand, to forgive means you no longer have an issue with this matter, and I do have one. Yet, here my life is much simpler."

"At first, every nice old lady I saw -- I was thinking what she had done back 'then,'" says musician Eleanor Cantor, 35, the lead singer for the bands "The Hunters" and "Sister Chain and Brother John," who has lived in Berlin for seven years.

"It does not mean that every time I go to buy coal I think, 'Oh, Jews were burned here,' and yet, when I hear young Germans talk about choosing a school for their children which will have the lowest possible 'nicht-Deutsche Anteil' (non-German population), I shudder," Cantor says. "And obviously, this is because of past times."

Part 2: An 'Insane' Night Out
At the entrance to the ZMF club near Rosenthaler Platz in the city's central Mitte district, a German stranger greets the reporter with a friendly " Shalom ." It's a Saturday night at the monthly gay-friendly party "Meschugge," which means "insane" in Yiddish. Israeli flags hang everywhere in the club, and images of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza and a drawing of a pig are projected on one wall. DJ Aviv Netter is in charge of the music, and he is playing international and Israeli pop hits, from Blondie and the Pet Shop Boys, to Israeli Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana International and Roni Superstar.

Netter, 26, was born and raised in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and moved to Berlin four years ago.
"Obviously, there are very beautiful and intelligent guys here, an amazing nightlife, and you can visit neighboring countries -- you're not trapped between hostile ones," he says. "But I left Israel out of desperation, not because it's so cool to move to Berlin." Netter says that in 2006 he was active in the gay and lesbian forum of the left-wing party Meretz, and was convinced he was about to see the rise of the Israeli left. Instead, things collapsed, leaving Netter disillusioned.

'The Germans Are Full of Serious Identity Crises'
With a European passport thanks to his mother, who was born in Eastern Europe, Netter made the move to Berlin. His first year in the city, he says, was spent having fun and living off of his savings. Then he started Meschugge as a one-time event, and it became a regular attraction: "The Unkosher Jewish Night," as he calls it. A quarter of the audience is Israeli, the rest German. Netter says he suspects some of the Germans might come as a way to alleviate their own feelings of guilt.

"We Israelis cannot understand how it feels not to be proud of yourself, as a nation," he says. "The Germans are full of serious identity crises."

But Israeli immigrants in Berlin have their own identity issues. For example, almost all of them prefer to be treated as "Israelis in Berlin," not as "Jews in Germany." "Even the Germans themselves say Berlin is not Germany," says Russ. "The Jewish component of my identity has to do with a shared cultural past, not with a religious belief. I do not go to synagogue or eat kosher food."

Berlin resident Bialer, who is now fluent in German, says hearing the language all day on the street and thinking about the history of the city has only further strengthened her identity as an Israeli. And she has faced anti-Semitism head on. She says she has bumped into neo-Nazis a few times and once heard a group of Germans denouncing Jews.

Bialer says she approached them and said: "I'm Jewish, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. I cannot believe you talk like that in Germany in 2009." In response, one of them looked down and asked, "How long should we continue to support you?" Bialer said, "Support me? I've got a job!"

"My blood was boiling," she says. "Everything is nice, you are part of the city, and then a German tells you you are nothing."

Black Holocaust Humor
Many Israelis in Berlin use black humor, expressed in jokes about the Holocaust, as a way of dealing with the stress of living in the homeland of their grandparents' executioners. Keren Cytter says she once told such jokes to her German boyfriend, who then went on to tell his friends, which, she says, missed the point. One of the jokes went like this: A Holocaust survivor takes a lighter, snorts it, and says, "Ahh, nostalgia." When her boyfriend told that joke to his friends, none of them laughed, says Cytter.

Russ has heard his own share of black humor. "An Israeli friend in Berlin once showed me his apartment," says Russ. "When we got to the kitchen, he opened the gas stove and said: 'And this is the shower.' But the first time I told a Holocaust joke here, a friend warned me that it's illegal."

Though public jokes about the Holocaust might be illegal, the far right has gained traction in Europe in recent years, including in Germany, where a debate on multiculturalism opened raw wounds last summer. Some Israelis living in Berlin say that even with fluency in the language, full integration is not possible.

Singer Eleanor Cantor, sporting long black hair and dark make-up, says that in Germany she is still considered exotic at best, or, at worst, a parasite on the affluent society. "Even in Berlin, when someone does something that is unacceptable by Germans, they make an immediate association between his behavior and his ethnic origin," she says.

Living in the former seat of the Third Reich, some wonder whether or not history could repeat itself. "I won't say that it can never happen again," says Netter, the DJ. "The Holocaust taught us that you do not need monsters for this to happen."

Espresso and Real Estate
That hasn't stopped Israeli business tycoons from joining the ranks of the artists, gays and students who have discovered Berlin. Aroma, a successful Israeli espresso bar chain, opened its first branch in Germany in 2008, on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, a commercial and theater district. Israeli real estate moguls have also invested in local housing units.

"Berlin is a cheap city and develops rapidly," says Sagi Ginat, director of Aroma Berlin. "The fact that there are a lot of Israelis here is actually not a consideration."

Yoni Margulies, 32, is a consultant to potential investors, including Israelis, in Berlin. Margulies grew up in Jerusalem, and moved at the age of 13 to New York with his family. Six years ago, he left New York for Berlin. He came, he says, because of a girl. He stayed because he loved the city and its freedom.

Margulies also owns the Tape Club in Berlin, which occasionally hosts the Tel Aviv-based crew of a gay dance party called "PAG." He says he doesn't try to play up a "guilt complex" in his business dealings with Germans because he feels it's a cheap shot.

"Last week, I buried my grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, but the people I work with here have done nothing to my family," he says. "Maybe because of her I should be here. I'm walking, drinking and earning my money where Hitler got burned."

Doron Halutz is a staff writer for Israel's Haaretz newspaper. He is currently at SPIEGEL ONLINE in Berlin as an Ernst Cramer fellow with the International Journalists' Programmes.

Niccolo and Donkey
A new generation of Israelis are discovering Berlin. The monthly gay-friendly party "Meschugge," Yiddish for "insane," is a regular fixture in the burgeoning Israeli expat community and also in Berlin's gay scene.

Some revellers at "Meschugge" even dress up for the theme. Of his life in Germany, DJ Netter says: "You can visit neighboring countries -- you're not trapped between hostile ones."

Conductor Gil Raveh came to Berlin four years ago on the recommendation of award-winning Israeli conductor Noam Sheriff. Speaking of the ability of Israeli Jews to forgive the Germans for the Holocaust, he says: "I do not know if 'forgive' is the appropriate term. Forgive whom? Merkel? The waitress who serves my coffee?"
President Camacho
I still don't understand exactly how this works.... do resettled Germans from the Eastern Marches get Polish and Lithuanian passports?